In Defence of Seun Onigbinde, By ‘Tope Oriola
We cannot have it both ways: Complain about ineptitude and corruption in government and yet ask our best brains not to be part of governance. My argument is that we must not sink into ecumenical pessimism because of the overarching influence of societal and organisational structure. Social structure matters but so does the agency of the individual.
The public uproar over BudgIT co-founder, Seun Onigbinde’s appointment as technical adviser at the Ministry of Budget and National Planning presents an intriguing conundrum. Onigbinde resigned the appointment within days. He recognised — and quite correctly — the reputational damage and hemorrhaging of his symbolic capital. He had no choice than to resign in deference to public opinion. ‘Fisayo Soyombo offers one of the most thought-provoking perspectives I have read on the matter. Soyombo argues that by accepting the appointment, Onigbinde throws “a dagger right through the soul of social criticism and the intellectual contestation of ideas… Onigbinde desecrates the institution of civic advocacy.” However, Soyombo’s perspective is much more nuanced and balanced than the quoted statement suggests. He does not suggest that a social critic must not accept an appointment in government. Soyombo’s stance is that Onigbinde criticised the Buhari government “extremely, consistently, vehemently and belligerently”. This is evident in Onigbinde’s characterisation of President Muhammadu Buhari’s supporters as “haters of Nigeria”, “closet ethnic jingoists” and “worshippers of mediocrity”, among other assortment of pejorative descriptors. Therefore, Onigbinde should have waited until 2023 to be part of government.
Few people who opposed the appointment had such robust rationale as Soyombo’s, given the comments on social media. There seemed to be an arguably broad consensus that it was somehow immoral for a social advocate to accept a position in government. The popular standpoint received a boost from a 2018 tweet by the sorely missed Professor Pius Adesanmi: “I once said in a lecture that the day I hear that Seun Onigbinde has left BudgIt to be special adviser to one yeye somebody at the state level or in the presidency, is when I will give up on Nigeria and seek asylum in Burkina Faso.” Professor Adesanmi was known for his sarcasm but he probably meant those words — he did not wish to see Onigbinde rot in an inconsequential position in government. Professor Adesanmi also had Canadian citizenship, therefore, Burkina Faso did not stand a chance. On a more serious note, I do not think his tweet was intended to suggest that our best brains must never participate in government.
At the risk of crass opportunism and excessive disclosure, one of the conversations I had during my visit to the Adesanmis in Ottawa in February 2019 (a month before his death) was on his next steps. He was due for a two-year leave and was weighing a number of options. He expressed explicitly a desire to be vice chancellor of a university in Nigeria. He had no specific university in mind. No offers had been made but he said he would prefer a private university, where resources would not be a problem and he could negotiate autonomy from interference by the owner. His goal was to have a world class, research-intensive university devoted to educating Nigeria’s brightest minds. Ever socially conscious, he noted that one of his immediate priorities would be to engage in rigorous fund-raising to ensure that the university could provide full scholarships to outstanding students from poor families. Nonetheless, would social media have understood Professor Adesanmi’s rationale and plans if he had become vice chancellor of an expensive private university?
It is a risk we must take as a society in the absence of a concentrated physical or institutional space where talents may be drawn. We need credible people to step up in spite of the enormous reputational risk. Despite the criticisms of Professor Yemi Osinbajo, would you prefer Buruji Kashamu as vice president?
Of course, being vice chancellor is not the same as working for a government ministry. However, if you think that being vice chancellor is not political or shields you from the Nigerian factor, kindly consider having a serious conversation with one.
One main issue in the Onigbinde controversy is the established reputation of government in Nigeria as a socio-political space where brains go to waste. Positions in government ministries have become avenues for corruption and indolence. The term “evil servants” is emblematic of the organic and subterranean role some civil servants have played in the destruction and underdevelopment of Nigeria. I noted in a 2018 article “How Nigeria’s $1 Billion Arms Fund Will Be Spent”, the role of civil servants in Dasukigate. Rather than the newly introduced and contentious bank deposit taxation, we can generate a lot of revenue from investigating the wealth of many retired permanent secretaries and directors of finance and accounts, as well as special advisers. Property ownership in Abuja is one glimpse into the penetralia of corruption in Nigeria.
Despite that, we need our best brains in government. Anyone in immediate danger of being coerced into corruption and/or rendered inert has the option to resign and become a book author on their experience in government. It is a simple solution: Serve if you can and leave with your name intact. I appreciate the opinion of Professor Farooq Kperogi on the non-altruistic criticism of government. It is a risk we must take as a society in the absence of a concentrated physical or institutional space where talents may be drawn. We need credible people to step up in spite of the enormous reputational risk. Despite the criticisms of Professor Yemi Osinbajo, would you prefer Buruji Kashamu as vice president?
Government appointees come in different categories. There are the Tolu Ogunlesis, Garba Shehus and Femi Adesinas of this world. There are also the likes of Oby Ezekwesili, Nasir El-Rufai, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Charles Soludo, and Akinwumi Adesina, among others. They all have their distinct places in history. Some managed to keep their reputation intact and bolstered their credibility. The recently celebrated images of Dr. Akinwumi Adesina during his meeting with world leaders made many Nigerians enormously proud. Adesina was minister of agriculture and rural development during the administration of President Goodluck Jonathan. Adesina served meritoriously and positively impacted the agricultural sector. No one has ever accused him of corruption, despite the sleazes in the administration in which he served. He has moved on to greater things.
…we must always be wary of people of no known professional or occupational trajectory. They are largely those who go into government with nothing to fall back on and therefore, gleefully participate in fleecing the system. Such persons are unable to take a principled stance on any matter because their livelihood depends on being obsequious and sycophantic.
The point? We cannot have it both ways: Complain about ineptitude and corruption in government and yet ask our best brains not to be part of governance. My argument is that we must not sink into ecumenical pessimism because of the overarching influence of societal and organisational structure. Social structure matters but so does the agency of the individual. Never underestimate the capacity of one person or a critical mass of persons to change a system. If you are in doubt about what difference one person can make, ask residents of Abuja about the post-El-Rufai tenure as FCT minister.
To be clear, we must always be wary of people of no known professional or occupational trajectory. They are largely those who go into government with nothing to fall back on and therefore, gleefully participate in fleecing the system. Such persons are unable to take a principled stance on any matter because their livelihood depends on being obsequious and sycophantic.
On a final note, there is the question of what we want as a people. Recall that the great social crusader, Gani Fawehinmi, did not win his ward during his run for the presidency. The highly revered Femi Falana failed in his governorship bid in a state known for being over-educated. What do we really want?
Follow Oriola on Twitter: @topeoriola.